Wake Forest remembers 50 years of integration

10/02/2012 03:19 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

By Julie Huggins, News Editor

"It takes courage to make change," President Nathan O. Hatch said to an auditorium full of students, faculty, staff and alumni who had gathered Sept. 21 to attend "Faces of Courage" and celebrate the university's decision to desegregate 50 years ago.

During the peak of the Civil Rights movement in 1962, a young man from Ghana, Ed Reynolds, started his first semester at the university.

He was the first black full-time undergraduate student to matriculate.
Despite the fact that he had been specially chosen, the university's Board of Trustees refused to allow desegregation the first year he was scheduled to come, forcing Reynolds to enroll at Shaw University.

But the student body did not give up on their efforts to desegregate and integrate the campus. They fought, and many student organizations, including the Baptist Student Union, the Student Magazine and the Old Gold & Black, came out in favor of desegregation, calling for the administration to change their policies.

The Board of Trustees finally, in April 1962, voted 17-9 in favor of desegregation and allowed Reynolds to enroll. His tuition had been raised and paid for by students and different organizations on campus. His roommates had been chosen by a university chaplain.

And so, in the summer of '62, Reynolds came for his first session at the university. What students may not know is that Reynolds enrolled along with another black student, a female African American from the Winston-Salem community, Patricia Tillman nee Smith. Their enrollment made Wake Forest the first major private university in the south to desegregate.

Tillman, whose brother was a student at Winston-Salem State, was accepted to the university after the NAACP began questioning the university's decision to go across the Atlantic for the first black student. Her experience at the university, though, was less than stellar. Any grade that she received automatically became the failing score on the curve in her classes and she was so traumatized by her experience that she did not return to an undergraduate institution for more than 20 years.

Tillman, however, was expelled on "moral" grounds for skinny dipping in Lake Katherine, leaving Reynolds' journey as the official story the university chose to adopt about integration and desegregation.

Reynolds' story is the focus of the yearlong "Faces of Courage" event put on by the university to honor the historic decision to integrate.

As part of the event, the university debuted a documentary film, "The Impetus to Desegregate". The film chronicled Reynolds' time before and at the university, interviewing not just Reynolds but his roommates and a university chaplain with whom Reynolds was close.

The university, however, is focusing on more than just the past. A significant portion of the "Faces of Courage" event looks at the current campus community, as well as the role that minority groups continue to play on campus. Programs in the coming months will focus on Muslim Americans, American Indians and the role of LGBTQ on campus. On October 18, the university will kick off a conference discussing the roles of Muslims on campus as well as in the world. On November 29, the university will be showing "To Kill a Mockingbird" and then hosting a Q&A with Mary Badham, the actress who played "Scout".

All of these are parts of a larger effort by the university to encourage more diversity and acceptance in the community. But some believe that the campus isn't as diverse as it could- or should- be.

"I believe that Wake Forest has made great strides to improve diversity on campus, but we still haven't covered the distance to be considered a 'diverse' campus," junior Steve Clark said. "I think if the university becomes less concerned with hitting a certain percentage of minorities, and makes an effort to appeal to a different type of student, we can drastically increase diversity."
Reynolds agreed.

"We've come a long way, but Wake Forest isn't there yet," Reynolds said. "You move forward, and there will be setbacks, but you must continue progressing. You cannot be discouraged.

"A truly diverse campus isn't simply about differences in color, but a full integration of different cultures, customs, backgrounds and ideas."